Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The FTC Blogging Guidelines, clickthroughs, and AdSense

There's been a fair amount of talk these past couple of weeks about the FTC's new blogging guidelines, which recommend, among other things, that bloggers reveal their relationships with the products and companies they write about. For instance, if you're, say, a gadget blogger, do you buy the products yourself? Or do you get freebies from tech companies? Or just review copies which you then have to return? Bloggers, the guidelines suggest, ought to be revealing this information, in the interest of transparency.

The reaction has been complicated. Most bloggers initially seemed more or less on board, at least in principle. But some controversy has resulted from the gradual realization that the new rules don't apply to traditional news media. In other words, they're regulating the little guy first, and hardest.

You'd think most of this wouldn't apply to us, but you'd be wrong. In this interview with Ed Champion, FTC rep Richard Cleland says that review copies of books ought to be returned.

Seriously? Yes. From Ed's interview:

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

In other words, if you review books for free, and get nothing in return, then you still have to return the book. But if you're getting paid to review books, not only can you keep the money, you're not responsible for returning the book. The assumption that good reviews are expected from bloggers is, in my view, insane; I could lecture you for hours about all the crap books that get praised by crap reviewers in the nation's major newspapers (if there even is such a thing anymore), and much of what we say here consists of rigorous criticism. Hell, in the last post, I was even critical of one of my favorite writers in the world.

FWIW, I do not accept galleys from publicists. Rhian does, occasionally. 95% of the books we write about here, we buy ourselves, at an independent bookstore, no less. (Most fiction I buy, or nonfiction used as research for something I'm writing, is paid for by my Cornell research account, but other kinds of books are out-of-pocket.)

Other stuff falls between the cracks, though. We sometimes post about our friends here, and if we do, we do so in the form of praise. Friends we're likely to criticize we don't post about. So...no lies, but not necessarily the full truth. Also, we have friends in publishing, who sometimes send us stuff they think we'll like. Some of these people may expect us to post on the blog about what they send, but often we do not. In the next week or so, I will be posting about just such a book--Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. I like it--but I also like Matt, the editor who sent it to me. I'm here to tell you I'm not doing him a favor, but ultimately you'll have to take my word for it.

The real pisser here is, the only way for bloggers to actually earn money from their blogs is to run ads, and many of those ads would be in the form of clickthroughs to bookstores, or AdSense. But this apparently doesn't give us the same rights as, say, the Times Book Review, which is in fact no less insulated from cronyism, insider baseball, and mutual backscratching than we are. Indeed, apparently it makes us even more suspect. Even if the Times Book Review's editors are careful to avoid such unethical behavior, they are dependent upon their writers' voluntary disclosure of any conflicts of interest, and believe me, not everyone reports everything.

The FTC's guidelines arrive at a time when I have just recently been noticing how much traffic we get (more than I thought), and considering, after two years, partnering with Powell's for clickthroughs, or sticking some AdSense in the left column. (Rhian, FYI, is leery of this, even without the FTC's rules, and I admit that I am, too.) We have run this blog for nearly three years now without attempting to make a penny off of it, and we'll continue whether we end up running ads or not. But it irks me to think that we would be suspected of unethical behavior if we link readers to Powell's (regardless of whether we like the book in question or not), while there's nothing wrong with Knopf taking out a full-page, blurb-littered ad in the same freaking issue of the NYTBR that their latest literary blockbuster is being praised in.

So: damned if we do, damned if we don't. For the record, the last two books we reviewed, the Lorrie Moore and the Ishiguro, we bought at a store, and are keeping. When we review books here, we will tell you where they came from. And for my part, I still don't want to hear from publicists. No offense--I have one of my own, and she is great. But we write this blog because we like it, not for the swag. Which, nine times out of ten, if it actually existed, would end up propping up the dining room table or on in a box for the library sale.

EDIT: Markos has just posted a very similar diatribe, with more swears, over at Dailykos.com.


rmellis said...

I have started accepting books from publishers, mostly because I spend so much time at the bookstore surrounded by books that I want very much... but I don't make much money. A few moments of weakness at the store can suck away half my paycheck. If publishers want to send me freebies on the off chance I'll love them and publicize them on this little blog, I'm not going to stop them. It stops my jonesing.

But heavens above, I'll be happy to say where I got them. But sending them back??? That's redonkulous, and it won't happen. Used books are worth about $1, and cost quite a bit more to ship. We'd do better to burn them in the woodstove.

ed skoog said...

It's strange that there would be FTC guidelines for blogs. I still think of the internet as a lawless zone, the west without fences.

As you semi-acknowledge, John, newspaper reviewing, newspapers, and book publishers are beginning to disappear. Their outlines are blurring, shimmering, soon to be ghosts.

Because storytelling and poetry persevere, we'll still be around in whatever form, and will still be significant, substantive, read, listened to, and somehow sort-of remunerated.

What's most archaic about the guideline, perhaps, the the antique notion that books have economic value worth getting excited about, or, at least, worth planning for a future where new physical books have economic value worthy of federal attention.

Anonymous said...

Yes, totally! I got a bitter little chuckle thinking about this supposed used bookstore a swag-drenched literary blogger could open, thanks to the largesse from the publishing industry.

A used bookstore! Good god, a fella could really clean up, if only he could get his hands on some of those used books.

jon said...

i never considered that there was an economic value at all to posting an Amazon link on my blogh for a book I was writing about. the only idea i had was that an author might actually sell a book that way. whenever possible I link to the publisher, if it's a small independent. the idea that any of this could be about money is ludicrous. I assume authors like sales because it means they're being read. The whole point is to read and write about what you're reading! Well, look what they did to internet radio. Look what they do to pirate radio. A friend of mine attended a publisher's conference on e-books in Canada, and said one of the big concerns was that e-books dilute the market. Offering something for free hurts everyone. I mean, it's a sinking ship. And now damn, my secret get rich quick plan of opening a used bookshop will be stolen by everyone!

ed skoog said...

I think it's awesome, and says something about big publishing and little publishing, that Wayne State University Press is the publisher of one of the National Book Award nominees in fiction.

Jack Moskowitz would want me to point out that to his generation it's just "Wayne University".

Anonymous said...

Also, my friend and colleague Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon got a nod, too.

sjwoo said...

Will companies include a prepaid return envelope? Because if they do that, then I'd be happy to send whatever back. I'm trying to become less of a pack rat, so this would actually be welcome.

These are just guidelines, though, right (sorry, but I'm not gonna read 81 pages of gov-speak to find this out myself)? So you still don't actually have to do it. It's not like G-men are gonna come knocking on your door. At least not for this reason.

Pale Ramón said...

What do they think is going on? Payola for English majors?

rmellis said...

I always wanted payola.

Anonymous said...

I like the postage-paid envelope idea!

ed skoog said...

Because you could steam off the postage and reuse it on holiday cards.

ed skoog said...

Off topic, but I'm sure we're going to talk about it (already have a bit, with suspicion) -- my college roommate, Truck Stop Love drummer, and now movie critic Eric Melin has posted a review of Where The Wild Things Are. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bP6hcrhp5wU&

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